CategoriesTechnology

3 Breakout Technologies for 2021

I spent some time thinking about broader trends over the new year, and came up with some predictions for breakout technology in 2021. Writing always helps me clarify my thoughts, so thanks for reading and please let me know what you think!

A little enterprise-y probably but you get what you pay for. And a little surprise in the middle!

Blockchains

Obviously cryptocurrencies are mooning right now, which is going to throw more focus on not just Bitcoin and Ethereum but on blockchain technology in general. And it has come a long way since the last bull cycle.

Since the last parabolic rise in cryptocurrency in 2017, and the subsequent crash, blockchains sort of faded from the mainstream zeitgeist. But the use cases have evolved and the technology matured. And to this day, most people still know blockchain mostly as the thing that Bitcoin sits on top of, but blockchains now support an exploding shadow world of completely digital financial products.

Besides Bitcoin, which recently crossed half a trillion dollars in market cap, blockchains also power Ethereum, and some other blockchains such as Decred and Polkadot. Ethereum in particular has flourished as a hotbed of innovation for #DeFi (Decentralized Finance) which automates many of the functions of a traditional financial system but on a blockchain. People are using blockchains to create powerful incentive alignment systems. Blockchains make money programmable. And that is leading to a shadow reinvention of many of the structures that we’re used to, but with incentive-laden twists. You can now farm yields automatically, deposit money into smart contracts that provide liquidity in various asset classes, own a fractional share of a virtual hedge fund, and securitize just about anything into a tradable, liquid asset.

Going forward there’s a good chance that blockchains will revolutionize the way we think of ownership and require a new type of economy. You can already see it happening, as people are now comfortable with the idea of owning a fraction of a bitcoin and a fraction of DeFi entities which exist merely as smart contracts. Most central banks have already announced exploratory projects (at minimum) with digital currencies. And this will allow central banks to become involved in not just monetary but fiscal policy, surgically injecting stimulus into very specific parts of the economy. If everyone has a digital wallet, central banks will finally be able to deliver money directly to individuals. Bitcoin will likely become the best collateral in the world and Ethereum most likely the engine that the transaction layer runs on.

Artificial Intelligence (Guest post)

Artificial intelligence is still in its infancy, but the rate of development is stunning. As the Internet became a thing, it took decades for it to evolve into the ubiquitous technology that it is today. But as soon as it became possible to create machines that could learn from experience, progress exploded. AI now exists in almost every consumer product, and even the most common chatbots are good enough to make them useful.

There are a few different ways to measure AI’s progress. There’s progress in the technology itself, which has gotten much better at specific tasks. There’s progress in the number of things that AI can do, which has expanded rapidly. And there’s progress in the quality of AI, which is measured by how well AI does things that we used to think only humans could do.

As AI technology gets better, we’ll see it in more and more places. The more that AI is involved in our lives, the more we’ll be able to trust it to do things for us. The Internet of things will get smarter, and we’ll get better data from our devices. The data we get from our devices will help us make better decisions, and this will lead to more automated decision-making. The first areas to be automated will be simple, repetitive tasks, like customer service.

Ready for the surprise? The above paragraphs (everything under artificial intelligence up to this paragraph) were actually written by artificial intelligence. You can see a video of it being written below. (OpenAI’s GTP3 Da Vinci engine if you’re curious.) Unedited, straight from the mind of the machine. This technology is shockingly good now, and it will make a lot of jobs obsolete.

That’s an AI algorithm writing an opinion about AI as technology

Company API’s

API’s have followed an adoption trajectory very much like Web sites. Initially they were incredibly expensive and only the biggest companies had them. After a while it became a requirement to be a respectable mid-sized company. Then smaller companies got on board, and now everyone has one.

API’s are very much the same way. The adoption curve of API’s provided by companies for consumption by the outside world is still nascent, but it enables everything else:

  • If your company has an API it can be used to build apps and share data with partners, its main use case today. But also…
  • If your company has an API it can support artificial intelligence “employees” for many if not most of the tasks that are staffed by cubicle farms of people today (zoom farms?)
  • If your company has an API it can participate in the blockchain economy through integrations with purpose-built blockchains and oracles (trusted data providers for blockchains)

And most importantly, API’s support cross-organization connected workflows, which are a necessity in the digitized post-COVID world. If you can’t talk to the outside world you cannot participate in the e-commerce and online economy, which may be the only economy functioning for the near future.

I already see a rush within the insurance industry to stand up API’s because the market is demanding flexibility and connectivity. From talking to folks in other industries it appears that the same thing is happening elsewhere as well.


That’s it, my guess for the tech that is set to break out this year. We’ll see how I do!

CategoriesInsuranceTechnology

The new insurance tech stack

Historically the Insurance industry has been slow to innovate, but COVID flipped the script. The innovations that used to set companies apart (Api’s, quote-to-bind, marketing automation, etc.) are now business requirements, and innovation has moved into new areas.

The role of an insurance company is changing. Increasingly, insurance companies are in the business of collecting data about their policyholders and then distributing that data to multiple internal and external stakeholders. Internal stakeholders being actuaries, underwriters, and claims adjusters. External stakeholders being policyholders, agencies, regulators, and TPA’s.

It’s worth exploring what this means to companies and agencies. A focus on data distribution and coordination fundamentally changes the role of the insurance CIO/CTO. A role that has historically been focused on vendor selection and implementation projects is now forced to consider data flows and platform architecture, and it puts enterprise architecture at the center of the equation.

A technical leadership role that has historically been focused on vendor selection and program management is now forced to understand and plan for data flows and platform architecture

The toolbox for insurance companies going forward does not look like the enterprise architecture of yesterday.

The new toolbox

Instead of monolithic core systems that handle everything, CIO’s and CTO’s are increasingly looking outside of traditional vendors for key capabilities. The services in the toolbox for most insurance companies new include:

  • CRM — there’s always a source of truth for the customer, and the CRM is usually it.
  • Marketing automation — Hubspot and the like are often used for automated customer outreach, and sophisticated companies are using marketing automation for ALL services (including for claims and billing). 
  • Quote-to-bind (that’s us!) — You need a way to turn traffic into policies with a great customer experience. Should be able to sell any product you have to any channel you want to leverage.
  • Billing — invoicing, payments, endorsement reconciliation.
  • Agency management — agency codes and commission management.
  • Policy engine — your source of truth for the policy, usually lives inside of a policy system but in reality should be an independent service (stay tuned for some exciting news on this front).
  • Certificate management — getting policyholders and others the documentation they need.
  • Claims handling — the customer experience to make the best of a bad time for any policyholder.

Now there are a couple of additional items required which every company needs as well:

  • API’s — for any company with plans for digital distribution, this is a must. This is your technical front door to the rest of the world, and if it’s impossible to open or non-existent, you should not expect to get in.
  • Identity management and authentication — to connect all of these components, there is a layer of identity that every company has to own somehow. In order to create a cohesive user experience across all of the other services, this is key.
  • Analytics and data lake initiatives — with multiple services comes the challenge of bringing all of that data together in a usable format. This is they key to unlocking the latent potential in all of the data being collected. There are some incredible new tools.*

* This is especially interesting because there is so much room for disruption insurance that comes with free and open data flow.

The build-or-buy ship has sailed. Very few companies have an appetite for building large pieces of software internally, even fewer are successful at it. There are exceptions, but they are typically niche carriers or new MGA’s who are starting with a green field. Prebuilt components will provide richer data, a better experience, and infinitely faster time-to-market than something built in-house, when that’s possible.

Technical experts at carriers and agencies are being forced to quarterback a platform architecture and strategy, selecting and then connecting the dots.

BUT… can they?

A platform is the wiring for all of these capabilities. The identity management and authentication, authorization, and the data all make up the infrastructure, the substrate upon which microservices are wired together, and then user interfaces are placed on top of them.

Many companies now are focusing their technology groups on selecting these core components and then quarterbacking the process of plugging them in.

The most advanced companies, at least within insurance, are also developing some of their own specialized services–typically to support differentiation within their market niche.

Hopefully, if you’re in the insurance industry, you have a plan for this that you’re already executing on. If not, you should talk to somebody who’s already doing it.

But if you are, the future is exciting. This all leads to composable business models… up next!

Technology

I started programming when I was 12 and wrote my first book (on 3d game programming) when I was 16. I love technology and I still enjoy coding from time to time to keep my skills and knowledge fresh.

gray and blue abstract painting

The new insurance tech stack

Historically the Insurance industry has been slow to innovate, but COVID flipped the script. The innovations that used to set companies apart (Api’s, quote-to-bind, marketing automation, etc.) are now business

Read More »
typhoon

The data edge in insurance

Here are a few areas where there is just so much potential for data in the insurance industry, and some interesting things different people are doing with it.

Read More »

Uptake

I am proud of my role as the founding CTO of Uptake, a data science company for heavy industrial machinery. We led the company from 2 employees to Forbe’s Hottest Startup of the Year and over 400 employees.

CategoriesInsuranceTechnology

The data edge in insurance

I’ve had the pleasure of being in a few different industries now: call centers, industrial machinery, and now insurance. It’s always interesting to try to observe not just the differences between them but also their similarities. Specifically, the similarities in how these different industries are incorporating data into their vertical stacks.

Within insurance, data has probably a more direct impact than any other I’ve seen because it’s based almost entirely on math, at the end of the day. You have to take in more than you pay out.

Here are a few areas where there is just so much potential for data in the insurance industry, and some interesting things different people are doing with it.

Using data to underwrite better

Boils down to taking more good risks than bad

  • classic data science application, write algorithms that are smarter
  • finding completely new sources to use such as drones, sensor data, and social media profiles
  • partnering with third parties who have exclusive access to useful data including personnel histories, vehicle location, business profitability, and more

Ultimately all of those come

sources of proprietary loss data

Challenges:

  • Lack of a process for figuring out how to use new data sets
  • Getting new data sets into a data lake

Using data to simplify insurance for the consumer

Prefill data etc

Using data to simplify insurance for the consumer

CategoriesInsuranceTechnology

Digital agencies are the future of insurance

Selling mattresses used to be an incredibly capital-intensive proposition. You needed real estate, a storefront, stock in the store and salespeople. Only a few chains of mattress stores and department stores sold them.

Then, the Internet happened.

When the now-giant mattress company Casper launched in 2014, they took advantage of the fact that a brick-and-mortar store is no longer required to sell to customers. A massive physical presence is no longer a requirement to compete in a market, meaning that Casper could immediately come in and compete with mattress and department stores, without the massive capital investment required to compete in the market with physical stores.

Today, six years later, they are the 7th largest mattress retailer in the country.

The Internet has been doing this for years — knocking down barriers to entry and letting innovation flourish. The tools that Casper used to break into the mattress market in a big way are available to everyone. And that’s the history of the Internet in a nutshell: it makes opportunities that were previously only available to few now available to many.

And it’s happening in insurance next.

The digital tools that used to only be available to VC-backed startups who invested millions to build them are becoming available to all agents. And it’s turning the insurance industry inside-out. The ripple effects will be felt for decades

To be clear, insurance agents are never going away. They are the experts who help the average person or business owner properly buy insurance. Most people wouldn’t make decisions on their investment portfolio any sooner than they would try to remove their own appendix. And insurance is the same way: it’s a complex product that requires training and experience to buy and sell intelligently.

The problem is that right now, most agents don’t have the technology to effectively meet the needs of consumers who are accustomed to delightful online experiences. They have the personal piece down pat, but this is only half the battle. The future requires a human touch augmented by technology to remove frustration, redundancy and unnecessary work from the process. The future is better.

The real threat is that the existing agency system is incapable of adapting fast enough, leaving insurtechs and direct-writing carriers to step in and take all of their customers. Agency independence dwindles, leaving customers with fewer choices and a poor customer experience.

Fortunately, the Internet is once again intervening.

Digital agencies are the wave of new technology-enabled insurance agents who have a digital customer experience and workflow to support their customers in the way they expect to be supported, while retaining that human element and expertise that is irreplaceable.

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Digital agencies are freed to be more creative with their marketing and advertising, selling into specialized niches to deploy their expertise much more freely. They interact with connected carriers who make their products available to digital agencies to sell through their digital tools.

Digital agencies still have the same people who power the insurance industry today: producers, account managers, claims advocates. Only now, they are augmented by technology that helps them scale to more customers and more segments without missing a beat.

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Digital agencies and connected carriers need each other
  • Digital agencies are universally connected to their policyholders and their carriers. This allows information to flow back and forth in real-time so that customers aren’t waiting on manual processes to complete to get the end result.
  • Digital agencies own the customer experience and are the face of insurance to the customer. They don’t hand off digital touchpoints to carriers or anyone else. They control their own destiny and their own customers.
  • Digital agencies optimize their book by up-selling, cross-selling, and interacting with their customers more regularly and in an automated way. They step in when and as-needed, and otherwise let their technology manage the day-to-day logistics.

What this means is that digital agencies are freed to do what they do best: sell insurance. Agents should be creative, thinking outside the box about new and better ways to reach their current and potential customers. They should be inventing new vertical specialization and sales programs and using that to drive their growth both internally and with their carriers.

This is literally happening right now. At the Internet of Insurance, we are bringing world-class technology to independent agencies, starting in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The type of technology that used to be only available to a handful of insurtechs is now available to Big I members in those two states and, soon, across all 50 states.

When the digital tools that used to cost VC-backed startups millions to build become available to every agency, what happens? Digital agencies and connected carriers create the ability to sell insurance cost-effectively, in differentiated ways, with a great customer experiences changing the insurance distribution landscape

CategoriesStartupTechnology

Data Companies Eat Software Companies

I was in the car this morning listening to a BBC report that, for the first time in a long time, the mortality rate in the US went up instead of down. The average life expectancy actually got shorter this year. That’s scary, but it got me thinking about software and a trend that I’ve noticed. A trend that is going to separate the winners from the losers over the next five years.

There’s a clear line developing between the future haves and have-nots in the digital world. A line of thinking around where the value lies and what you can and cannot make money on.

Traditional software companies have focused almost exclusively on building software and charging for it. This is outdated thinking and looks to me a lot like painting a giant target on your forehead. Using this model today is like charting your course by looking in the rearview mirror. Meanwhile you don’t realize that you’re going off the road.

If you look at what the most forward-thinking companies are doing you can start to see glimpses of where the world is heading. Here’s a hint: they’re all giving their software away. Why? Because software doesn’t matter.

Have you been watching as tech giants who understand where things are going give away all of their best technology? Look at Google, who isn’t locking its AI technology, Tensorflow, away in a deep, dark vault — instead it’s giving it away. Same with Facebook, who gave away its React technology and looks to be headed in the same direction with its own AI stack, FBLearner.

Why? Because on a long enough timeline all technology becomes commoditized, and they know it.

The reality is that all of the supposedly “hard tech” is becoming more accessible by the day. Most if not all predictive algorithms are out there for anyone to use. Scalable architecture is getting easier to build every day. There’s really nothing you can’t do with open source technology now, the barriers to entry are dropping constantly. Some of the technology that’s out there right now for free just blows my mind. Tools like OpenAI Gym would have been sold for megabucks just two years ago. They’re free now.

So what does matter then? Where’s the real action?

Control over the data. That’s what matters. You can replace technology, you can’t replace data you don’t have.

The kingdoms of tomorrow will be built on an empire of data, and the land rush is happening in plain sight, right now, if you know where to look.

Most companies won’t come out and say that data is the most important thing, but actions speak louder than words. When IBM acquired weather.com and Merge Healthcare for multiple billions of dollars, many people were puzzled. There’s no obvious synergy there, the acquisitions happened because the value was in the data.

The most interesting companies today are working hard on giving away software that other companies charge tons of money for. Why? In order to get access to the data.

I agree that software is eating the world. But in the technology food chain, data eats software.

The really interesting dynamic here is that all of the software-driven startups are effectively creating a hit-list of areas where free technology can come in and take them out at the knees, undercutting them in order to get the data. I suspect we’ll see quite a bit of disruption to the status quo in the coming years, there are lots of companies out there who aren’t thinking about this correctly.